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Bill Herbert
renga report

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Bill Herbert
Arbeia Renga: 3rd Sept. 2003

I’d begun to regard the reconstructed Commander’s House at Arbeia as almos a personal, intimate space, ever since I’d taken a class from Hadrian Primary in, just as it was being completed. We were the first people to visit, and I was struck by the fact that the school occupied the same site as the vicus, that is, the civilian settlement which sprung up outside any Roman fort.

When one of the archaeologists let us into the room where he was sorting out the different finds, and we started making notes about the bones and potsherds he’d just uncovered, it felt like we were having the same experience as those first visitors to the original camp might have had, only we were looking back from the twenty-first century, like looking down the wrong end of a telescope.

So when I walked in on Alec Finlay brewing up some green tea in a little Japanese iron pot, his kettle attached to a highly anomalous-looking plug in the wall of the summer dining room, it felt as though that domestic space had undergone a subtle wrench. Suddenly here we all were, sitting on the big couches the Roman officers and their families would have eaten from, sipping an beverage unknown to them and contemplating a poetic form unknown to most Westerners until relatively recently. The room was cold yet bright, high-roofed with little mullioned windows, evidently designed for another climate. It was as though we were at once entering the past and unable to live in it.

We had to find a way of aligning all these very present layers with the sinuous length of the nijuiin renga, its seasonal slippages and subtle allusions to the human heart. Was our starting season, for instance, still (just) summer or incipient autumn? I’ve been struck by the way the
references to the seasons in renga throw you on the resource of memory as a source of inspiration, yet the actions of spontaneous composition and continual reading aloud constantly returns you to the present moment.

The cultural leap we all attempt in writing this most particular of foreign forms seemed at once compounded and encapsulated by the further layers of history around us, and the strange status of this rebuilt half of an ancient house, with its own speculative reconstructions made concrete just as our own memories and cultural assumptions were being translated into the developing chain.

An unexpected burst of sunshine meant we lingered rather long over an al fresco lunch, watching the huge funnels of a cruise ship sliding past the
end of the fort and between the houses that face the river. I’d been thinking all day about L.S.Lowry, his fascination with the boats that enter the Tyne between the two great breakwaters, and again it seemed to me that the grain barges and supply ships of the later empire must have seemed as
large and inexplicable to any local sitting here seventeen hundred years ago. Miles Thurlow actually fell asleep briefly in the exact pose Lowry used
for the man lying on a wall smoking ú and echoed in the long torso of an oil tanker, with the smoke stack punning on the cigarette.

We had to hurry to catch ourselves up and get back into the steady rhythm of creation ú and Steve Chettle’s haiku about the Vindolanda texts enabled me to drop the only lines of Latin poetry found so far on the Wall into the mix: a single phrase from Virgil given as a handwriting lesson to a child. Somehow it fitted.

W.N. Herbert

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